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12 years a war cameraman

Filming stunning images against a great backdrop was the attraction for a cameraman who has shot footage in many of the world’s most volatile regions. He has now taken a step back, he tells THEO PANAYIDES


David Hands stands in the kitchen at Crewhouse – the production company he founded with two other cameramen/editors in 2005 – making a frappé, the quintessentially Greek (and Cypriot) iced coffee. “I was in Albania two weeks ago…” he muses, and recounts the excitement of an Albanian barista upon learning that David was Cypriot, begging him to try his frappé and deliver his expert opinion. A few moments later, another story: “When I was in Kenya, I used to joke it was the best frappé south of the Equator…”

David could tell stories all day, and not just about coffee: he spent 12 years (1993-2005) as a news cameraman, working primarily (though not only) in combat zones, covering a total of nine conflicts from Bosnia to Burundi to the war in Iraq. He left the life in 2005, and has spent a decade doing other things – co-founding Crewhouse, going to Cambridge for a Masters in Film and TV Production, working as Director of Photography on a number of shorts (one of them, Afterthoughts, is playing in this year’s International Short Film Festival in Limassol) – but the stories remain, in fact they’re the most obvious perk of a life as a war correspondent. Stories of bullets dodged, atrocities viewed from behind the lens of a camera, ambushes, near-misses and occasional miscalculations.

“When we were driving out of Baghdad, about three weeks after the statue fell, the road from Baghdad to Amman was notorious for hijackings,” he’ll tell me. Or: “If there’s one thing that scares me, it’s mobs. Because you can’t argue with them. If 50 people surround you and they’re all angry, you’re not going to get out of it”. Sarajevo was shells and snipers, but also brave, friendly people who “wanted the story told”. Burundi made him uncomfortable, “Burundi I didn’t like, it was the country I hated the most” – maybe because it was just a few months after the genocide in nearby Rwanda. He saw Hutu refugees being openly beaten – with hands, sticks, rifle butts – while being loaded onto buses in Rwanda after the massacres. He saw “a lot of inhumane treatment of Palestinians by Israelis. At the same time I also witnessed suicide bombing of teenagers – the Dolphinarium bombing in Tel Aviv [in 2001], where a teenager was having a party.”

I only hear a couple of stories – his party-pieces, the ones I assume he tells when civilians ask (as they surely must) about his experiences. Getting delayed at the border between Jordan and Iraq and consequently finding himself stranded on the road to Baghdad with darkness falling (he wasn’t ‘embedded’, hence vulnerable to attack by US planes as well as Iraqi forces), unable to go north, south, east or west without courting trouble. Driving the notoriously dangerous road from North Burundi to Bujumbura, fearing ambush around every bend, after the plane they’d chartered failed to turn up – and then the punchline, that the plane had actually crashed while coming to pick them up. “So you never really know: I mean, he could’ve picked us up and we could’ve crashed on the way back!”

profile2-With Zairian soldiers during the fall of Zaire
With Zairian soldiers during the fall of Zaire

Then there are stories that happened to others – like his colleague Jon Steele who suffered a full nervous breakdown at Heathrow Airport after coming back from assignment, and later wrote a book titled War Junkie as a kind of therapy. That’s not David, however. He was never a war junkie – and in fact, though telling war stories is something he does (as if aware it’s expected of him), he’s not one of those raconteurs who draws out every detail and turns himself into a kind of swashbuckler. The David Hands in the stories sounds a lot like the person in front of me – a mild-mannered, affable type with glasses and scraggly beard, rolling himself a cig and taking little sips of frappé.

“I’m a controlled person,” he explains at one point. “I never like to be out of control.” He’s not one to over-share, and politely declines to talk about his personal life. He never did drugs to unwind after filming combat (many colleagues did, he admits), and only ever drank in moderation. What does he do for fun nowadays? “I’ve got a motorbike,” he shrugs, “so I ride my bike on the weekends. I watch a lot of films, especially good TV series like Breaking Bad. I used to scuba dive, but I haven’t done it in a while. I mean, I’m 45 years old,” he adds with a chuckle, “I like being at home now. I don’t do that many adventurous things.”

He longed for adventure in his early 20s: “I was eager to get out of Cyprus”. Was he very restless as a young man? “Yes, I wanted to do stuff. I mean, I wasn’t good at school”. He got kicked out of high school – not for anything outrageous, just not turning up and not doing his exams. “I was…” he begins, trying to describe his teenage self. “I mean, I liked motorbikes, I was into motorbikes. A lot of my teachers – or at least some of my teachers – believed I’d amount to nothing… I was a bit of a wild kid, yes. But I wasn’t a bad kid. I wasn’t involved in drugs or stealing.”

He had no real plans for the future; at one point, his main ambition was to be a truck driver and drive around Europe. His best friend was into photography, so David borrowed a camera and started fooling around. He won a contest, found a job as a technician and a possible career loomed – though, he recalls, “in those days, when I told people I wanted to do photography they thought I wanted to do weddings!”. This was the early 90s, however, a time when Cyprus was the Middle Eastern hub for foreign press agencies – it all changed later, when life here became too expensive and Jerusalem and Cairo opened their doors to foreign media – which was how an untested, 24-year-old local cameraman got a job covering the war in Bosnia for ABC News. It was, says David, “an eye-opener”.

He liked the rush, and the chance to shoot pretty pictures in exotic locations; he was never a “grab-the-camera-and-shoot [type], I was always a visual person. I liked nice images”. He also enjoyed the camaraderie, though war-zone friendships are strangely brittle. He recalls going out with a close combat buddy in peacetime, when they were both based in Jerusalem, and how “awkward” it was making small talk without the constant backdrop of bombs falling.

What of the work itself, though? Wasn’t it a bit… you know, intense? The camera helps, in a way; the camera acts as a barrier. “That barrier protects you from what you see. Especially in the old days, with the Betacam camera where the viewfinder was black-and-white. And you had to have it on your eye, whereas with the new camera you have a little monitor. You could hide behind that”. The old moral paradox, of the cameraman who carries on filming when he could be helping, seems less paradoxical now: the cameraman works in a bubble, it’s the only way to stay sane. Still, says David, “I don’t believe, personally, that you can cover conflict without being affected, one way or the other.”

He did it for 12 years, half his adult life. He filmed a famine in Sudan and the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Israel, with identifiable body parts – a hand, a leg, a torso – strewn all about. “You try not to show grotesque images,” he says simply. “Nobody wants to see it,” not when they’re watching the News with kids in the room.

All these beheadings on the internet seem to get a lot of views, though…

He shrugs: “I don’t like seeing this stuff”. He never clicks on things that look grotesque or unpleasant. “I was always sensitive,” says David. “All bullshit aside, I wasn’t this macho ‘I’m going to go out and get the war pictures’ guy. You know, war scared me. It’s as simple as that. But it didn’t stop me from wanting to be there, and witness History and get beautiful images.

“I wasn’t on a mission – I was never an activist. I wasn’t like ‘I’m going to go and film this because I’m going to save the world’. My pictures may have saved somebody, may have not. I don’t know, that wasn’t my aim. My aim – and this is what I’m very proud of – was to tell the story as truthfully as possible. And I never broke that.”

That may well be a key speech when it comes to understanding David Hands – especially the part about not being an activist. Much has changed in the decade since he gave up being a war correspondent. For one thing, it’s become a lot more dangerous: “In the old days, everybody needed you to tell the story,” he points out. The two sides “needed the press, in order to get the story out – but now they do it on their own, with YouTube and Twitter and Facebook. So the last thing they actually want is an independent journalist or photographer running around!”. That’s one thing; but David is also scathing about what he calls “citizen journalism”, the type that flourishes on YouTube and Facebook. “I see stuff on the internet and I don’t really believe it,” he grumbles. “I mean, ‘Says who? Who’s telling me this?’. In the old days, you believed. You watched the BBC, and you believed it” – not because journalists were moral exemplars, necessarily, but because there was so much expense and effort in getting a story, the least they could do was get it right.

“This is not journalism,” he scoffs, talking of the damning footage regularly posted by today’s activists, “this is information. And there is an overload of information coming left, right and centre”. Isn’t it empowering, though? Letting people make up their own minds, without traditional gatekeepers? Maybe, he concedes, “if you sit down with every story and spend five days reading about it from 1,000 different sources – but you don’t. So the things you see posted on Facebook are ‘Look at what happened’. And suddenly it spreads virally that this really did happen”.

It’s not just the clear potential for fake stories; it’s more than that. It’s the way the discourse gets simplified, like the recent conflict in Gaza with all-too-obvious heroes and villains. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been to a conflict,” says David wryly, “where there was a side that was innocent”. There are always the strong and the weak – yet, “if the power was reversed, it would’ve been the same thing”.

Is he, then, a cynic? No, just “a realist”. Nor would it be true to call him apathetic – because he does campaign for the things he believes in, like the 20 bicommunal projects he’s made with Crewhouse because “I believe in understanding the Other”. But he doesn’t try to preach, only to show: here is a Turkish Cypriot, here is a Greek Cypriot. He comes across as a gentle person, entranced above all by visual beauty – his pretty pictures in exotic locations – and the Cyprus countryside (he’s half-British, and born in Britain, but has lived almost all his life here): “For me, fun is going to Paphos and spending time at Lara with the turtles, or going for hikes…”

Here’s another story David Hands tells me, of how his career almost ended before it began – of a slow day in Sarajevo when he decided to go out alone for front-line pictures, and wandered into what looked like “a Hollywood war-movie set. Burned cars, sandbags, no people around”. He walked around casually, took some video – and it was only when he went back to the office and showed others the footage that he realised where he’d been, right in the middle of no man’s land. “I really didn’t know where I was,” he recalls, and it very nearly cost him his life. “It never happened to me again, not knowing where I was”. He’s always tried to know his own mind, to be in control, from 12 years in a dangerous profession – leaving at the right time, with his sanity intact – to a decade at Crewhouse and a nascent career as a cinematographer. His frappé isn’t bad, either.

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